Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World, by Brad S. Gregory
I don’t plan on beginning each post on this book with a reminder, but I will for at least this one: if you haven’t read – or don’t recall – this post, please do so now before going any further.
In his introduction, Gregory offers a broad sweep of what he intends to cover in the book regarding the Reformation – the context of the time, the effect it had on Europe both at the time and continuing throughout the West to this day. He offers that the ends were not intended by the means:
Much of the Reformation’s influence remains indirect and unintended…. Protestant reformers five centuries ago were not heralds of modern individual freedom and autonomy. Neither did they envision modern democratic states or advocate for consumer capitalism. They did not support modern religious toleration or champion the modern separation of church and state.
Yet none of these can be understood without dealing with the Reformation.
Martin Luther would be horrified by most of the long-run outcomes of the Reformation, as would John Calvin….
In their view were what they considered to be terrible problems in the Church – and a desire to make people better Christians.
In their time, most Europeans lived in small villages; Paris was the largest European city, with 200,000 inhabitants, London had 60,000, and Cologne – the largest city in the vast expanse of central Europe – perhaps 40,000. Most buildings were made of wood and subject to fire. The average life expectancy was in the low 30-years-of-age. When the sun went down, it was dark. In a world without professional police forces, walls were guarded night and day.
Religion was more than religion – it was not separate from the rest of life. Other than Jews, it was taken for granted in Europe that one would identify as Christian – and a universal Christian at that. This would influence every aspect of life – from business to recreation. Baptism was a given, normally days after birth – given the risks to life on earth for the newborn, this was necessary in order to ensure entry to heaven.
Baptism also opened the door to the parish church and community – the parish and community being hardly distinguishable. Europe was made up of tens-of-thousands of parishes – from Scandinavia to the tips if the Iberian and Italian peninsulas. The parishes would be organized into dioceses.
Local experience of the Church meant participation in a web of social relationships of family, kin, and neighbors linked by customs, rituals, and worship led by a priest. …Social relationships and gender expectations were inseparable from Christian norms. And both public and private morality were conceived in Christian terms.
To the modern ear, it all sounds stifling. Yet, I suspect much of what passes for modern life would seem stifling to the man from this medieval period; I need not list the ways, I think.
Religion informed both politics and law. Far from being aloof from the buying and selling of goods, Christian ethical teachings shaped economic transactions and restrained greed. Education – from the small town to any of the sixty or so universities – was imbued with Christian ideas.
This does not imply that everyone, or even very many people, behaved like saints. Far from it.
And this was one of the concerns in the sights of the Reformers, though not the main concern and certainly not a new concern. This concern had been an issue for centuries – to include the sinful lives of many of the clerical leaders.
Yet this, for Luther, was a symptom and not the root of the problem. Luther had in his sights the teachings. Fidelity to the Scripture – as he saw it – was necessary for eternal salvation; hence this was the major concern for Luther.
So much for the environment of the time; what of the long-term impact?
The Reformation had the long-term impact of gradually and unintentionally transforming Europe from a world permeated by Christianity to one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming a matter of individual preference.
Gregory refers to this separation as secularization – and multiple areas of life became secularized due to the intractable problem that the Reformation inadvertently made of and for Christianity. Unlike many of the past attempts at reform – being aimed at the problem of Christians not living up to the teaching – the reforms proposed by Luther and others were aimed directly at the teachings themselves; false teachings, as far as the reformers were concerned.
The Protestants (as they would be later called) condemned the Church’s teaching, and the Church condemned the Protestants as heretics. I would suggest that each side saw the other as wrong – if not satanic – except that there was more than two of “each sides.” Once teaching was freed from the Church, it became free for any to teach.
While ultimately only two denominations of Protestantism would gain political support, the number of strains was almost innumerable. For the most part, all arguments came from Sola Scriptura – even the arguments made by the Church. The issue wasn’t the Scripture as Sola – it was the interpretation and application to daily life.
As an aside – and one reason I try to hold firm about avoiding doctrinal debates when my posts approach topics related to Christianity: the men on all sides of these arguments were tremendously learned; many of them had studied Scripture and meditated on God’s Word for their entire lives. If this is also true for anyone reading this, I suspect you have the opportunity for much more fruitful theological dialogue elsewhere. For the rest of us…just remember…the Resurrection!
Returning to Gregory: had sufficient numbers agreed with Luther, the Reformation would have taken a far different turn. Unfortunately, as is the case in all events that one might consider revolutionary, many were against the same thing – in this case, various aspects of the Church and its teachings – yet what each was for was quite different and unique.
Gregory identifies the period from 1520 to 1650 as the Reformation Era; by the end of this period, religion in European life was completely redefined. New ideas came to stand in where religion previously held sway. Religion’s scope was severely restricted, and people would be free to believe whatever they chose to believe.
Neither Luther nor any other major Protestant reformers sought this goal; it was prompted instead by the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics that followed in the wake of the Reformation.
Luther may not have wanted this goal, but it must be said that – even beyond his initial protestation – his personality and approach (and the wishes of the secular rulers of the time) was such that division was likely certain. It must also be said that the Church contributed an equal share. But more on all of this later.
And a reminder – the conflict was also between Protestant and Protestant. Unlike the Catholics, the Protestants had no mechanism through which theological disputes could be resolved – which, perhaps, should have been obvious to even the earliest reformers. Then again, what would you have done if you truly believed salvation was at stake?
What of the consequences for us, even today?
The political and moral thought of the Enlightenment and the secular philosophies of the modern era were born out of the divisive conflicts among Christians in the Reformation era.
Great! Lemonade out of lemons! Due to the Reformation and via the Enlightenment came our liberty…maybe…
Today the politically protected individual right to believe whatever you want so long as you obey the state’s laws is an unintended consequence of the unresolved religious disagreements of the Reformation.
That would be the unchecked state and its unchecked laws. Oh…emphasis added.
Before diving further into Gregory’s work, I think a few comments from Jacques Barzun are in order: From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. Given the breadth and depth of Barzun’s work, I think his overview is worth considering.
He characterizes the Protestant Reformation as a “revolution”: in his definition, “the violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea.” Yet, in nailing his 95 propositions to the church door (an event that, at least according to Gregory, may not have happened exactly this way), Luther was doing nothing extraordinary. Debates were often started this way – for clerics this was a common practice. Imagine Luther’s surprise when he subsequently received from South Germany a printed copy.
The incipient revolution had defined the enemy: not the Catholic religion and its faithful, but the pontiff, his employees, and their hocus-pocus, that is, the trappings of worship.
This certainly was not Luther’s intent, at least not initially. What drove Luther to this point will be addressed by Gregory. More from Barzun:
In his Judgements on History, Burckhardt summarizes the Reformation as an escape from discipline. …the thick crust of custom that broke in the early 16C did not consist solely of abuses; nor did the revolution benefit in a material way only the princes. It threw off Everyman’s shoulders a set of duties that had become intolerable burdens.
…Protestantism did destroy in the West the possibility of that ancient solace, single truth and unanimous belief.
And with it, perhaps, the possibility of separate and competing power authorities, providing some cover for decentralized governance and liberty.